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Best time to apply for passport is now

(ran HT edition)

If you plan an overseas vacation this year and will need a new passport, the sooner you apply, the better.

Nyda Budig of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs says that as of early February, the usual waiting period for a new passport is about three weeks (it wouldn't hurt to allow an extra week, though).

The passport service does have a special expedited procedure for travelers who need their passports more quickly. To use that service, you have to pay an additional $30 on top of the normal passport fee, and you also have to show your ticket or travel agent's voucher or some other proof of when you need to travel.

The pile of applications will get a lot higher as vacation season gets closer, so right now you have a much better chance of getting your passport quickly and without problems.

To provide information about getting a passport, the State Department has recently introduced a 900 telephone number. Recorded information is available 24 hours a day, at a charge of 35 cents a minute.

The recorded menu also gives you an option of speaking to a passport service representative. For that service, available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the charge is $1.05 a minute.

The number to call is (900) 225-5674. There's also a TDD number: (900) 225-7778.

As an alternative, the department has also set up a phone service available for a flat $4.95 fee charged to your credit card. The numbers for that service are (888) 362-8668, TDD (888) 498-3648.

To get a passport for the first time, or if your last passport was issued more than 12 years ago or before your 18th birthday, you have to apply in person at one of 13 passport agency offices around the country, or at any of several thousand designated post offices or federal court clerks' offices.

You'll need proof of citizenship, usually a certified copy of a birth or naturalization certificate. You also need proof of identity, such as a driver's license, and two identical 2-by-2-inch photographs. The fee is $55 for a 10-year passport (issued to those over 18), and there's an additional $10 processing charge for those who must apply in person.

If you do have a passport issued in the last 12 years and after you turned 18, you can apply by mail.

Send a completed application form, photos and a check or money order for $55 (there's no processing fee for mail applicants) to Passport Lockbox, P.O. Box 371971, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7971. Your new passport will be returned by mail, along with your canceled previous one.

To get the addresses of the post offices and court clerks' offices designated to handle passport applications, you can use the Internet. Contact http://travel.state.gov on the World Wide Web.

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